This project is part of a larger group project by the MAP6 Collective, a group of nine photographers who travel together to a new destination every year to work on an agreed theme. Nine succinct projects formed “Finland: The Happiness Project” which was recently exhibited in Worthing as part of the Brighton Photo Fringe 2020. For my particular project I chose the city of Kauniainen which tops the polls as the most satisfied municipality in Finland; Finland, in turn, has topped the World Happiness Report’s index for the third year in a row. Originally, I was intending to do a comparative study between two locations, to gain a wider perspective, but within the timeframe I had available I could only focus on Kauniainen. I was keen to explore this concept of ‘happiness’ and to see whether the city was indeed ‘happy’ and, if so, what this happiness relied upon: was the city’s affluence a major contributing factor or was there something more substantial in terms of the social infrastructure?
The World Happiness Report was a topic which we chose as a Collective to focus on. It wasn’t an obvious choice but it turned out to be incredibly relevant. Health and wellbeing have become increasingly important, provoked by Covid, as topics to explore. As nine photographers, we all decided on solo projects that addressed various aspects and complexities of the World Happiness Report. Obviously, happiness and how this is measured is a challenging subject to document and as a topic is contentious and open-to-debate.
If you go there, and try to capture a spirit of “happiness” so to speak, you’ll be hard-pushed to find it. It’s not immediately apparent. Bearing this in mind, my photographic method was to meet and talk to as varied a cross-section of the community as possible, to form a portrait of the city. By meeting and talking to local inhabitants I learnt that there is a bedrock of inter-generational trust and a social infrastructure that supports and enables healthy living. It’s difficult, without comparison, to say whether this is unique but I was struck by how interconnected and well developed the community aspects of the city were. For example, I photographed the volunteer Fire Brigade where people from an early age can train to become volunteer firefighters. It seemed to me that if you live there, there’s a lot to do.
Before my visit I contacted Christoffer Masar, City Mayor, to enquire as to whether he’d be happy to meet me; from this initial enquiry I received a very enthusiastic response and a list of contacts. I wanted to gather as many diverse viewpoints as possible within the span of three or four days. I think if I investigated and spent more time I could get a broader range of views. In general, I asked everyone the same question: “what does happiness mean to you?”
I focussed upon portraits rather than general views of the city or landscape; my intention was to show people in their environment and form a collective portrait of the city. For the forthcoming exhibition, at Kauniainen City library, I have grouped together images that hopefully work in conjunction with each other to portray different aspects of the city. I’d be very interested to hear what people gather about happiness from these portraits when viewing the exhibition.
The term happiness, I think, is a red herring. As part of my project, I talked to other people like Frank Martela, the philosopher. What I gathered from people like Frank is the insight that Finnish people are more reserved and don’t really want to characterise themselves as “happy”. Of course, there is plenty of discontent in Finland too, but what we’re really talking about is societal wellbeing. Increasingly, it seems to me, there is an urgent need to discuss healthy living and social well-being, alongside environmental issues, and there seems to be much more conversation now about factors that make a healthy society and enables individual health and happiness. It seems more important than ever to emphasise these factors that are embedded in Finnish society.
The Happiest Place on Earth, Kauniainen Library, Thurmaninaukio 6, 02700, Kauniainen. More information here.
Check out more of Barry’s work here.
Explore MAP6 collective’s work here.
Image: Eva Falk-Drake